Pointers for Bible Thumpers (Like Me) in Having Honest, Loving Relationships With Catholic Churchfolk

Bible Hero Moses

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We as Jesus freaks have the right to any conviction that is based on what the bible says.  We can have the audacity to claim them to be truthful as well.  Maybe the biggest point of contention we can have with Catholics is that the teaching office of the church cannot even be given equal status with the scriptures.[1]  We need to proclaim gently and lovingly that we do esteem the Word of God above everything and hold it as our final authority on all matters- even church organization and religious expression.  Catholics may rightly view us as a loose bunch of anti-authoritarians, and we need to prove that we believe in the biblical organization of the church found in 1 Timothy 3, and as well believe in the universal church that transcends all denominations.  May I be so bold to say to anti-Catholic Christians that this universal church includes people within the Catholic Church?  There are many practicing Catholics that love the Lord, and plenty that don’t.  There are many practicing evangelicals that love the Lord, and plenty that don’t know Him at all.  We need to be realistic and level the playing field here!  I still emphasize that the evangelical focus on the Word of God as sole authority can have greater potential in mobilizing people to follow it, but there are always exceptions to every rule.

There was a tragedy within the Protestant fold back in the 1920’s, during the modernist-fundamentalist split, the “soul gospel” became divorced from the “social gospel”, with the fundamentalists orienting themselves toward the former (soul winning, evangelism, preaching) while the more liberal, mainline denominations focused on the latter (social justice, activism, service).  As a legacy of this split, contemporary evangelicalism has struggled to rejoin these two integral aspects of the gospel.[2]  We need to live a fully balanced Christian life and reverse the curse so to speak.  This will prove to our Catholic friends that we don’t sit around and accuse them of believing in “salvation by works” when we live only by faith and have no works!  Granted, it must be said that one not need undergo formal baptism, regular confession and membership of the Catholic church to be saved, but rather one needs only to confess Christ with His mouth and believe in his heart that He is the Son of God to be truly saved.

Cool is ultimately a lonely world because it makes people fear you.  It signifies elitism, which makes uncool people really uncomfortable.[3]  We need to throw out this addiction to being cool that we have within the evangelical church.  It’s corny, consumerist and unbecoming.  It may be the biggest turn off to the world and to other churches that we project.  We need to be ourselves and allow our transparent quirkiness out with our Catholic friends, and then they’ll see we are genuine normal people just like them.

In a religious framework, if you feel you are living up to your chosen religious standards, then you feel superior and disdainful toward those who are not following in the true path.  This is true whether your religion is of a more liberal variety (in which case you will feel superior to bigots and narrow-minded people) or of a more conservative variety (in which case you will feel superior to the less moral and devout).  If you are not living up to your chosen standards, then you will be filled with a loathing toward yourself.  You will feel far more guilt than if you had stayed away from God and religion altogether.[4]  We need to express the freedom we have from sin and the joy that this brings us to our Catholic friends.  We need to express this to the world.  Knowing Christ certainly isn’t about becoming a religious elitist.  It is about having the peace, love and joy of the Holy Spirit ignited in our hearts.  We need to understand that God has us in a process, on a journey towards eternity.  All of us who call ourselves followers of Christ are invited to join in this process of being made like Christ called sanctification.  Instead of beating ourselves up into religious obedience, we need to continually, gratefully confess our sins to a great God and Lord who loves us and wishes all the best for us.  May we all continually draw closer to Him and Him only.

[1] Challenging Catholics, 21

[2] McCracken, Brett  Hipster Christianity  (Baker 2010), 150

[3] Ibid., 194

[4] Keller, Timothy.  The Reason For God  (Penguin 2008), 186-187


Catholics and Protestants are Buddies in New England!

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Just recently I had lunch with the local Catholic Priest in the town of Conway, New Hampshire, Don Gauthier.  We talked about everything from his hobby of restoring vintage cars, to our calling to ministry, to the unfortunate many years of Protestant/Catholic tension in New England, to his struggle to be faithful to the call to celibacy.  I didn’t sit down to perform an interview with him for these writings, because I felt the greatest gift I could get from this was to start a friendship with him.  We’ll be meeting again next month for lunch and had a great time initiating a friendship that I hope will last into the future.

When my Grandmother on my Dad’s side, the one who almost became a nun but then got married and joined a vehemently anti-Catholic denomination, was on her deathbed, some profound changes happened within her heart.  She finally told my mother, a born and raised Catholic, that she loved her.  This is something she had never said before.  She spent time with her sister, Anne, still a devout Catholic.  They prayed together at her bedside.  This is something that had never happened before.  It took an entire lifetime to let go of the grudge against a religion and see Christ clearly.

How are we as evangelicals to befriend and love Catholics?  We have many disagreements about theology and the church, and we live on a battleground that has the bloodstains of years of ethnic and territorial war.

I must beg the question then, “are we as evangelicals able to love the criminal?  The drunkard?  The prostitute?  The neo-pagan atheist?  The new age agnostic/Buddhist/Taoist?  The fundamental Muslim who desires to take our life?”  We are called to reach out in love and truth to everyone.  Jesus Christ modeled this.  So this counts for everyone that is made in the image of God.

One might argue that Catholics espouse false teaching.  Yet many Catholics believe that Jesus Christ was fully God and fully man, and was truly the only true Son of God.  I think it would be safe to say that though we have our disagreements, we agree on the basic tenets of Christianity.  We can both ascribe to the Nicene Creed.  We both generally love Jesus, and in a general sense we are brothers and sisters in Christ who both think we’re right.

How do we specifically connect with New England Catholics?  We have to know that in the current moment, New England Catholicism is in a state of flux.[1]  This may be because of the sex scandals of the early 2000s, but its safe to say that many from a Catholic persuasion would not even necessarily ascribe to the doctrines and beliefs of the Catholic Church.

New England Catholics tend to be well educated.  57 percent of individuals living in households where someone was a member of the Catholic Church were college graduates.[2]  Though its not all that important, it may be beneficial to dialogue intelligently with Catholics in New England.

We need to understand the ethnic diversity of Catholics in New England.  Catholics in southern New England tend to be of Irish, Italian, French, Polish, or Portuguese heritage, and in northern New England of Irish or French-Canadian heritage.[3]  Donald Gauthier, the priest who I met with for lunch, admitted with regret, that his parents, of French-Canadian Catholic heritage, wouldn’t even associate with those of Irish Catholic heritage!  So its folly to assume that ethnic tensions don’t exist within the Catholic church as well.  But we need to be informed about the identity and history of the people we are talking with.

Unlike evangelicals, like Catholics nationwide (44 percent), New England Catholics as a whole (48 percent) are more likely to affiliate with the Democratic rather than with the Republican party.[4]  We need to lay down our political leanings and be willing to lovingly dialogue with people.  For republican Christians in New England it would be best to lay aside political debates and discuss the gospel and Jesus while being hospitable and loving.  This should be an obvious course of action!

On the highly charged moral and political issue of gay rights, well over half of all New England Catholics take a liberal stance.[5]  We as evangelicals need to be sensitive and well informed of the needs, thoughts and insights that come from within the gay community.  Again, this doesn’t mean that we abandon our convictions about scripture, it just again means that we should be willing to lay aside debates and discuss the gospel and Jesus while being hospitable and loving.  Again, an obvious course of action!

As many priests and some laypeople within the Catholic Church would wish otherwise, only 16 percent of New England Catholics are likely to rely on the Bible in their decision making.[6]  We should not assume that Catholics are scripturally literate and use overtly Christian lingo in communication.  We instead should treat them as fellow human beings who have a spiritual interest and a common heritage.  Regardless of the reasons why people choose to be Catholic, and no matter what kind of Catholic they are- whether liberal or conservative, traditional or progressive, mystical or social activist- the most certain statement that can be offered about Catholics is that they are relatively independent and self-assured about their Catholicism.  This independence comes, in part, from within Catholicism, specifically from its doctrinal emphasis on reason as the complement of faith.[7]  Catholics are likely to be as diverse in their thinking as the rest of culture.  We’d likely find a somewhat similar reality in many evangelical churches.  We are called by Christ to engage with our culture, not hide from it, so we ought to engage with the secular non-religious as well as the secular religious.

I’m happy to read in a book that is written from an entirely non-biased, non-religious statistical view that another of the most distinctive features of New England conservative Protestantism is the willingness of many conservative Protestants to work closely with Catholics, and even to say nice things about Catholicism.[8]  And again, I hope I can add to this trend as much as I hope others will do the same.  If we can’t agree on theology we can certainly agree on justice for the poor and other civic issues.  We certainly ought to be working together on such things.

[1] Religion and Public Life in New England, 71

[2] Ibid., 73

[3] Ibid., 74

[4] Ibid., 76

[5] Ibid., 77

[6] Ibid., 79

[7] Ibid., 80

[8] Ibid., 120

Watch Out for Jesus Freaks in New England!!

Sky Saxon from The Seeds bought my guitar
Within the largely Catholic culture of New England, those who would hold to an “evangelical” view are a growing minority.  It seems like a small group of people at first glance.  Demographically, culturally, and politically, conservative Protestants have a weaker hold on New England than on any other region in the United States.  According to the NARA, as of 2000 only about 27 percent of the region’s Protestants and 37 percent of its Protestant congregations are evangelical.[1]

But even with all this in mind it’s also important to understand that in the mid-twentieth century, conservative strains of Protestantism (evangelicalism, fundamentalism, and Pentecostalism), were virtually invisible in New England.  Which makes the growing conservative Protestant presence in New England significant.[2]

This revival (of a conservative Protestant presence) began during the 1950s, fueled by population movement, and by deliberate mission efforts launched from other parts of the nation by a large number of evangelical, fundamentalist, Pentecostal and holiness groups. [3]

But one could ask, what does the presence of conservative Protestant New Englanders look like in the 21st Century?  It’s clear that the new vitality of conservative Protestantism in New England flows from two sources: from the activities of Protestants migrating to New England and from the now-significant regeneration of pockets of conservative Protestantism that survived after the overwhelming majority of New England Protestants moved to theologically moderate or “mainline” orientations in the early 20th century.[4] Its clear that many Protestant denominations in New England moved more clearly towards the broad culture’s mindset.  However it seems that many people within these folds have begun to be awakened to a true, deep study of scriptures.  On top of this are all the migrations to New England.  I live in the beautiful town of Conway, New Hampshire.  I’m originally from Ohio, I work with a pastor who lived in Iowa, and we have people in our church from Texas, Florida, Georgia and more.  Many people around the U.S. are starting to recognize that New England lacks a loving, truthful Biblical witness.  I’m glad to see and be a part of bringing the grace and truth of Christ to many people here who have been burnt by hypocritical leadership, strange cult teachings, and dead irrelevant religion that has no bearing on their life or personal struggles.  And I’m aware of my own hypocrisy, lack of full understanding of the totality of truth, and proneness to habitual ritual that keep me from reflecting Christ fully.  However, God’s grace continues to work in me and we see His power and grace at work in the church we’re in.

Since we’re part of a church re-plant the name of our church was changed from “The White Mountain Chapel” to “Journey Church”.  This name change reflects a culture that we desire to reach- people on a spiritual journey.  We desire to see the gospel go out amongst the hippies, progressives, mavericks, young professionals, and salt of the earth working class heroes of Conway, New Hampshire.  Many Pentecostal churches are also participating in a broad movement away from calling their churches names that highlight denominational identity, usually arguing that denominational labels mean little to non-churched people.[5]  We are seeing a great movement in New England away from the irrelevant wineskins of yesterday’s religion and into the expression of the gospel of the 21st Century.

Yet there is still much work to be done within the church of New England.  There is a particular in-group mentality that exists within some churches.  New England evangelicals are more Republican than evangelicals in any other region of the country, except in the Pacific Northwest and in the Mountain West states.[6]  All political leanings aside, this doesn’t say that it’s bad to be a Republican.  It just says that people of liberal persuasions are not coming to accept the gospel in New England, for if they were, statistics would represent a contingent of believers who lean to the left politically.  There can be a general “Us vs. Them” mentality within the church, where many republican Christians believe that the culture is out to destroy them with liberalism, homosexuality and other forms of ungodly behavior.  The irony here is that the apostle Paul and the band of early disciples found themselves in the same culture, possibly more decadent and freewheeling, in the empire of Rome.  Yet churches were established amongst the pagan Gentiles, who accepted this free gift of grace often more readily than the pious Jews of the time.  We need a radical gospel that offers the grace of Christ to everyone in New England, without compromising scriptural values.

All in all, Conservative Protestantism has momentum in New England.  Its churches are growing.  They are constructing highly visible new structures on the outskirts of many of the region’s towns and cities.  The movement’s educational infrastructure, although small, is well organized, well-funded, and of high quality.[7]  The most valid assessment is that New England’s conservative Protestants are prospering, but still dwell mostly on the margins.[8]  So though there are many more steps to take forward within the church in New England, the digression is hopefully over!

The big test will be whether conservative Protestants will become doctrine and consumer oriented to the point of giving up the will toward good works.  Will mainline congregations that move in a conservative direction retain their strong civic orientation?  Will they act more like conservative Protestant congregations, which are typically much more inward looking?  The implications for New England’s hyper-local culture could be significant if the mainline abandons its role as cultural custodian.[9]  Christians with biblical values in New England need to truly live out those biblical values, which means having strong biblical doctrine, loving the poor and marginalized, being an active loving member of the communities they’re in, and building the Kingdom as well as proclaiming the gospel.  May the chasm between the social gospel and the fundamental gospel disappear that we may experience the full council of God’s Word!  It is worth emphasizing that the notion of the New England town as an organic, democratic entity that bestows a common local identity on residents and transcends religious identities was developed by and for Protestants.[10]  We need to pull ourselves out of the mire of dead tradition and religious apathy and pursue the faith of the truly faithful that once inhabited the newly found towns of New England!  I’m not speaking here of those bigoted Puritans that chastised Catholics, but more of the faithful few believers in Christ in the founding days of our country who lived out the gospel in every way, and strove to be at peace with all men.  Men like that don’t make the history books, because their glory is in heaven.

[1] Religion and Public Life in New England, 107

[2] Ibid., 107

[3] Ibid., 108-109

[4] Ibid., 107

[5] Ibid., 112

[6] Ibid., 117

[7] Ibid., 121

[8] Ibid., 121

[9] Ibid., 121

[10] Ibid., 140

Is There a Sin That Counts Someone Out of Heaven for Good?

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Though this will be a short section it is important to include.  The Catholic Church would claim that the categories of mortal and venial sin are established in Scripture (1 John 5:16-17).  The church has taught that this simply means some sins, by their very nature, separate us from God eternally whereas ‘lesser’ sins like sins of omission or sins against charity, do not necessarily separate us from God.[1]  This is a debate I’ve had with my Mother before.  If some sins, in their ugliest form, like child rape, murder, cannibalism, satanism, etc., can lead one to have no chance of repentance, then we might as well count out the apostle Paul, who wrote a good half of the New Testament and was a murderer of followers of Jesus before he met Him on the Damascus road in a blazing fire of blinding light.  Yet it can be said that within Roman Catholic moral theology sins that are counted to be mortal have to be committed apart from ignorance, or in other words with full awareness of the evil involved.  The gospel in scripture seems to say that no one is counted out of redemption when it comes to Christ.  I don’t think one can just live however they please and then repent at the last minute.  But I do think that some deliberate and grievous sins can be forgiven, and that person that enjoy the rest of a lifetime living purely for Christ while experiencing the consequences of their sin temporally, not eternally.

And my friend Anthony Simone, who is currently a seminarian, mentioned that according to the Catechism, a sin is only unforgiveable if the person refuses to accept forgiveness, called “blasphemy against the holy spirit”.  Mortal sins in full awareness might be harder to reconcile, but can always be forgiven if asked and accepted.  This is truly a biblical view.

So I’ve been led to understand that probably most people misunderstand the doctrine of mortal and venial sin, and potentially use it to justify certain sins they dislike more than others, and say that these certain “sinners” are counted out of a chance at salvation.  I suppose many people do this- I’ve certainly seen it with evangelicals!  I don’t even know where to begin with that!  Haha.  I’ve often seen many evangelicals treat people in the gay community as if there’s no chance they will ever follow Christ into a celibate lifestyle.  I suppose when it comes down to it we just don’t have the perfect view that God has.

[1] Ibid., 121-122

Get Ready For Controversy! Peter and the Popes… The Biggest Catholic/Protestant Disagreement in History

Pope Clement I

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Wow, are we ready for some controversy?  Here we go to the central issue that divides Protestants and Catholics- the succession of Peter and all the Popes who have believed to be a part of it.

Catholics would generally believe that Peter- the leader of the apostles- is the rock on which the church is founded, and this matches up with Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 2:20 where he says the church is built on the foundation stone of the prophets and apostles.[1]  And they do believe that every Pope since Peter has been in correct succession and was at the command of Jesus.  This is convincing mostly because they would appeal to the early church fathers that carried the gospel in the first three centuries after the apostles of Christ themselves walked the earth, and these were certainly men who had the true gospel passed on to them.  They use the verbiage that the Catholic Church uses today.

Catholics would appeal to Irenaeus, one who came to relationship with Christ through the teaching of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the apostle John.   Iranaeus said (around 180), “We will refute those who hold unauthorized assemblies…by pointing to the tradition of the greatest and oldest church, a church known to all men, which was founded and established at Rome by the most renowned Apostles Peter and Paul. (Adv. Haer 3).[2]  And here we have all the idioms of modern day Catholicism- the original Church having its center in Rome and having been built up by Peter and Paul.  Yet Irenaeus was writing against Gnosticism, which was a prevalent teaching in his day that was springing up amongst a sect of people who said they had received a special oral tradition from Jesus Himself.  Irenaeus was justified in writing against them because they were contradicting the teachings of Christ handed down through John & Polycarp, as well as in the accepted, legitimate gospels and letters that had circulated through the church that had been established and preserved by those who followed the teaching of the apostles.

But Rome was just a city.  It was never meant to become the center of wealth, power, tourism and opulence that exists in Vatican City, an enclosed enclave within Rome.  This is not reflective of the Rome that Peter and Paul encountered either.  Their Rome was one that hated and martyred them.  Was it meant to become a center of religious power many years later because Peter had his ministry there at one time?

Protestants would argue a vehement “no” to that question.  Many would interpret Matthew 16:18 where Jesus says, “And I tell you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” to mean that Jesus was speaking of Himself when He talked about “the rock” that He would build the church on.  Other Protestants would say that Peter is not the rock on which the church is founded, for that rock is God.  He is, rather, the church’s inaugural foundation stone.  He is the first to have understood who Jesus is, to have given expression to it and it’s thus fair to say that the church is built on him.[3]  So this line of thinking would ascertain that Peter is the rock Jesus is talking about, but it was never meant to say that the church completely rested on Peter in any way.  Either way one would come to the conclusion that labeling Peter as the first Pope is faulty.  Besides, while at the Council of Jerusalem, Peter has the final word and sums up, this is no Pope.  The apostles operated as a collective and worked by consensus: ‘it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us’.[4]  So was it the right expression of Peter’s role to begin a line of leaders that would have the absolute, final, last say in matters of the church?  Was Peter even viewed in this way in the early days of the church?  Besides, when is the last time we have seen a Pope have someone bow down to him and react like Peter did to Cornelius? “As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. But Peter made him get up. “Stand up,” he said, “I am only a man myself.” (Acts 10:25-26)  Wait a minute!  Wasn’t this the most powerful man in the church?  Yet he was humble like Jesus taught in Mark 10:44, “and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.”

Where did the leadership in the church begin to get so power hungry?  History shows that with the break-up of the old Roman empire, the papacy became a mighty secular power.  It pursued wars, handed down legal judgments that were sometimes spurious, sentenced people to torture and death, proscribed people on the cutting edge of science and accumulated enormous wealth.  Straying into corridors of temporal power often left it at odds with the Spirit of the One from whom it claimed to derive its power.[5]  Yet Catholics would still insist that every pope is a sinner…when you read back through the history of the papacy you may find scoundrels, but you will not find any pope who has formally taught heresy.[6]  This is again the defense that the Catholic church is still Christ’s only Church, and His authority exists in it despite any abuses that have happened in leadership.

This line of thinking reaches its zenith in the doctrine of papal infallibility. “Papal infallibility” is a belief that in matter pertaining to salvation and morals, and under certain strict conditions, the pope may teach without error…the infallibility rests on the office of the papacy, not on the individual.[7]  But can it be defined what these “strict conditions” are that the pope may teach without error?  What if he does error?  And as much as one could say that the infallibility rests on the office of the papacy and not the individual, nonetheless the individual that held the office of papacy would be prone to taking on an air of infallibility.  There is no human being alive that wouldn’t be tempted by such a position of power.

[1] Ibid., 41

[2] Ibid., 48-49

[3] Ibid., 44

[4] Ibid., 46

[5] Ibid., 51

[6] Ibid., 65

[7] Ibid., 65-66

Bishops Descended From Christ’s Apostles?

Seventy Apostles

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Catholic Apostolic Authority is a very confusing concept.  I do believe that most Protestants are ignorant about what they mean by it so we say foolish things when we don’t completely understand them.  I have certainly been guilty of this in the past.  Catholics do believe that the Catholic Church speaks with apostolic authority, but the bishops of the Catholic Church don’t have the same authority as the apostles.  They haven’t been with the historical Jesus and they can’t teach anything new.  What a bishop writes isn’t automatically on a level with Scripture, for instance.[1]  So for all the times that I’ve assumed that Catholic bishops are given the exact same authority as Christ’s apostles, I have to now apologize!

However, Catholics do believe that the bishops of the Catholic Church most fully bear the same authority that Jesus gave to His apostles.[2]  There’s a weird twist here, because at first it sounds contradictory.  Catholics believe that the authority that Jesus gave to his apostles has been handed down in a line of succession to the bishops.  They don’t possess the same authority and spiritual power of Jesus or even the apostles who were with Jesus possessed.  It’s more because of a lineage.  They possess the same authority because Jesus passed it down.  Catholics believe the dynamic teaching authority which Christ gave His apostles continues to live through the ministry of the Catholic bishops who have received their authority in direct line from the apostles- passed down over the last 2,000 years.[3]

I would argue that this minimizes the power of Christ’s potential in the heart of a believer, and makes the apostles out to be supermen, when really they were just normal guys that had the tremendous power of the Holy Spirit of God unleashed in them.  I would add that though we didn’t have the great privilege of walking with Jesus, we have the same power that the apostles had available to us today.  This may be controversial to say in America, but if one only looks at the Christians around the world who are being persecuted and martyred for their faith, they would see average people that most would call “nobodies”, are laying their hands on people and healing them, seeing visions of Christ and His angels, and witnessing the power of God come to life.

[1] Ibid., 26

[2] Ibid., 28-29

[3] Ibid., 30

Who Interprets Scripture? People or God?

After Carlo Saraceni, or his studio, imaginary...

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Protestants and Catholics don’t disagree about the value of the Bible, but they do disagree about the church’s authority in comparison to the Bible.

Many evangelical Protestants would concur that The Bible is God’s book and it is the Christian’s final court of appeal.  And that in its original meaning and Holy Spirit inspired interpretation, It will never lead into error in matters essential to Christian living or salvation.[1]  So its safe to say that the Word of God stands on its own as a divinely inspired direct link to the voice of God Himself.  If one didn’t agree with that statement I’d have to dare them to pick it up, lay all observance of religious hypocrisy aside, and read it.  Anyone that would have an ounce of conscience would be deeply transformed by this book.

The Catholic view differs from this in an important sense.  Catholics would rightly say that The Scriptures, were written by the church (or God’s people), and used by the church in worship and teaching.  This couldn’t be disputed.  But they also would say that the church was first and the Bible came from the church – not the other way around.  Therefore the Catholic Church still says that the church is the authentic authority to interpret the Bible today.[2]  Now for someone that doesn’t believe in the supernatural power of the Scriptures, that they really are the Word of God, this statement would be hard to argue with.  It seems logical to say that the church created the Scriptures and therefore have the authority to interpret the Bible.

But if one understands that the Bible is the Story of God speaking to humankind, then they could also say that in a sense, the Scriptures transcend all human authority.  God is really the only one that has the right to interpret scripture.  This may sound like an extreme statement.  But what I really mean is people have to completely lean on Him to get the real meaning of the Word.  When the interpretation of this Word has been left to human authority, lots of awful things happen in the name of Jesus.

So it’s really safe to say that it is the combination of the word and the sacraments that actually forms the church, rather than the other way round.[3]  God is the true informer of the church, and it’s not within our realm to impose our ideas onto what His Word says (though we naturally do constantly!)  And as much as the traditions of the church are crucial, not least the doctrinal formulations of the undivided church of the first three centuries, still the Bible remains the final court of appeal.[4]  It may be easy for someone to mock this obsession with a book when they don’t know how truly powerful it is, but again, I would dare that person to pick it up, read it, and while reading it earnestly pray and ask God if its from Him!

This is where I think the Reformers got it right.  The Reformers made the authority of the canon dependent not on the church but on the Scriptures in themselves and their internal witness in the hearts of believers.[5]  Now do some corrupt maniacs say that God told them to take LSD and influence women to kill hollywood stars, or go into a village in Africa and commit mass suicide in the name of Christ?  Yes.  But if one approaches the scriptures with a pure, earnest heart, they will come to know God fully.  In the practical sense they will also become better husbands, wives, and citizens, generous givers, more loving parents, fighters for justice, voices for the downtrodden and all the things that our culture would generally deem to be honorable.

[1] Ibid., 7

[2] Ibid., 9

[3] Ibid., 14

[4] Ibid., 15

[5] Ibid., 23

One Unified Church??? Scattered Protestants and the Central Institution of Catholicism

Erasmus in 1523, by Hans Holbein

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The High Kirk of Glasgow by Night
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There are probably just as many differences between the Catholic and Protestant tradition than there are similarities.  There aren’t so much in matters of basic understanding of Jesus’ identity, but more in how the identity and institution of the church is supposed to play itself out.

It’s a sad statement full of truth when we realize that all the sad divisions within Protestant Christianity have their roots in the Reformation when a single, historic and unified church authority was abandoned.  Each new division produces a smaller and more extreme group, and each new extreme group is one step further from the mainstream of historic, fundamental Christianity.[1]  What was the cost of Luther’s risk in the 15th Century?  The poor results of the Protestant Reformation were a plethora of erroneous interpretations that led to sects galore.  Now people separate and start new denominations over things like mode of baptism, predestination vs. freewill, and other things that Christians should simply not divide over but rather be able to have intelligent, gracious discussion about.

But Catholicism gives no solution by insisting that an objective, historical and universal interpretive authority is still required in order to correctly ascertain God’s truth…no doubt all 20,000 Protestant denominations all claim the Holy Spirit’s work, and yet they all disagree,[2] but the institution of the Catholic Church, which once was a direct air of many of the apostolic teachings, has marred its understanding of what it means to be the church in many ways.  It may be true that there are many crazy, whacko cults that have come out of Protestantism, and even many more silly divisions amongst well meaning followers of Jesus.  But the Catholic church does not provide the sole authority and solution to this dilemma that all of Christendom finds itself in.

[1] Ibid., xxix

[2] Ibid., 7

What Do Catholics and Protestants Have in Common?

The Pope with American President Ronald Reagan...

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It may be the most important in this analysis to recognize the similarities that Catholics and Protestants share.  After all, we come from the same beginnings, and the Protestant church was born out of the Catholic Church.  And we may have rubbed off on each other more than most are willing to admit!

Particularly, though potentially unaware of it, Catholics picked up on a lot of Protestant influence in the days following Vatican II.  For those Catholics who did continue regular practice (during the change to Vatican II), the experience of religion was changed and, in general, more intense and personal.  No longer passive observers, they were now active participants in the liturgy, singing hymns and reciting responses along with the priest.  Moreover, at any given Mass there were likely to be more lay people than priests taking official roles in the service, as readers, song leaders, distributors of communion, and even preachers.[1]  Could it be that Pope John Paul II had recognized the urgency of granting more individualism to Catholics and consequently adopted what looked like more of a Protestant expression of a Catholic faith?

At the root, Catholicism and Protestantism have much in common.  They share the same love for scripture.  From the beginning the Catholic Church has venerated the Bible as the supernatural word of God…and teaches the divine inspiration of scripture…and encourages lay people to read and study the scriptures.[2]

Evangelical Protestants have a great veneration for the scriptures, and believe they are the true word of God, and pastors of the evangelical persuasion certainly encourage lay people to read and study the scriptures.

And Catholics and Protestants share a love for Jesus.  (Catholics) don’t believe either the Scriptures or the church come first.  Instead Jesus comes first.  The primary revelation of God to mankind is in His Son Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.[3]  I hope this would be one thing that Catholic and Protestant Christians would unite on!  It may be controversial to say it, but didn’t Jesus pray for those who would believe in Him through the message of the apostles?  That “all of them would be one, just as Jesus is in the Father and the Father is in Him? That we also may be in us so that the world may believe that the Father has sent Him?” (John 17:20-21)  Are we too afraid to apply this verse to Catholic/Protestant relationships when we agree on basic things of faith?

And something has been lost particularly in the 20th and 21st Century expression of evangelical Protestantism, that being the dedication to good works.  The false, lukewarm brand of incomplete Calvinism that is unfortunately prevalent in many modern evangelical churches leaves many well-meaning, seemingly faithful people in a malaise of “saved by faith” mentality.  Dwight Longanecker, the Catholic in a Catholic/Anglican debate book called “Challenging Catholics: A Catholic-Evangelical Dialogue”, brings up this point when he says, “Does even the most fervent Protestant really believe good works are totally irrelevant?  If they do they contradict the New Testament which says ‘Faith without works is dead’ (James 2:17).”[4]  Protestants need to recover a healthy fear of God that leads to an urgency for good works, born out of faith and not merely fear.

Catholic doctrine also contains a parallelism with Protestantism in regards to original sin.  Catholics believe in original sin.  Following St. Augustine, they believe original sin wounds God’s image in them.  In other words, they need to be healed.  Christ’s work on the cross restores them and enables them to co-operate with God’s grace in their lives.[5]  Though Catholics generally reject a doctrine of total depravity and believe a cooperation with God’s grace in their lives leads them to conquering of sin, they do hold this doctrine in common with Protestants.

Oddly enough my inquiry into Catholic opinion of other Catholics showed that even some Catholics admit that they have less general knowledge of the bible than other Christians!  Dwight in the book “Challenging Catholics” talked of this when he admitted,

“I have to confess that I really don’t think Catholics have the same level of Bible knowledge and love for the Scriptures that Evangelicals usually have.”[6]  I need to be fairly critical of the movement that I am aligned with and say that many evangelicals don’t know the Bible and view their faith as a simply social Sunday function.  But I thought it was stunning that a Catholic would admit the same.  I appreciate the fact that Dwight feels the need to challenge people within his own faith context.  This is something I suppose I wish that Catholics and Evangelicals had in common.  I wish we would challenge each other to know and follow the Word faithfully.

We as evangelicals often rely on a plethora of preachers to give us the Bible knowledge we desire in the medium that’s most appealing to us, and then we may turn around and criticize Catholics for relying on bishops in seeking their interpretive authority.  I think it’s safe to say that we all do this, and should be striving to understand the Word for ourselves instead of having to be spoon-fed and mesmerized by whom we deem to be a “Christian superstar”.  Dwight brings up this point when he says that,

“All Christians believe in some final interpretive authority- it’s just that we Catholics recognize this fact and glory in it while you guys aren’t aware that it exists.”[7]  Now we’ll certainly argue of the validity of many Catholic spokespeople for interpretation eventually, but I do think its safe to say that both evangelicals and Catholics put their leaders on pedestals while subverting their own responsibility to understand and live God’s Word far too often.

As far as the issue of power hungry Christian leaders I think Catholics and Protestants are in agreement.  Lo and behold, Catholics aren’t completely blind to the corruption of their institution in the past, and we would be presumptuous to think so.  Dwight admitted in the book in the midst of a debate that (he) agree(s) with (Protestants) one hundred percent that there have been wicked popes, and that their shocking example has done terrible harm to the body of Christ.[8]  The papacy did evolve into a power-hungry and corrupt institution.  There were some very dark times indeed for the church, when it looked like the gates of hell might prevail over her after all.[9]  This last statement is somewhat shocking because its amazing that someone could see this level of corruption in a religious institution and yet still subscribe themselves wholeheartedly to it.  However, a good point is brought up when we realize that we must also consider whether Protestant rulers ever looked to establish temporal power, whether they used that power to maim, murder and kill, and whether they too were ever corrupted by ambition, greed and lust.[10]  The fact is that many people have abused the name of Jesus for their own gain, and their punishment will be just on the other side of eternity for it.  This corruption doesn’t merely exist in the Catholic fold either, for Protestants have had their share of vying for power and burning people at the stake.  It can be said that with great power, prosperity and widening influence, a religious institution is very susceptible to becoming corrupt and working against the ways of Christ.

[1] Ibid., 55

[2] Longenecker, Dwight & Martin, John.  (Challenging Catholics: A Catholic                       Evangelical Dialogue  Paternoster 2001), 2

[3] Ibid., 11

[4] Ibid., 117

[5] Ibid., 119-120

[6] Ibid., 12

[7] Ibid., 16

[8] Ibid., 64

[9] Ibid., 53

[10] Ibid., 53

Catholicism in the 20th Century

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1925. Taft is seated...

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Over the course of the 20th century, Catholics gained social acceptance and political power. [1] Post-Americanist Catholicism developed during the progressive era of American politics- the era of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, William H. Taft, and Woodrow Wilson…during this period some American Catholics appropriated the spirit of the progressive era, which is usually associated with evangelical Protestant moralism. [2]  In an ironic twist, Catholics began to adopt the motives of many of their Protestant neighbors.  Though the twentieth century also began to blur lines between religious difference and the common ethos that united people seemed to be the hunger for advancement.

Just as before in the 17th and 18th Century, Catholics still remained relatively blue collar.  Until the middle of the twentieth century, the Catholic Church in this region, as in other parts of the country, was an overwhelmingly working-class institution.[3]  But a noticeable shift happened in the 1930s.  George Q. Flynn has argued convincingly that under Roosevelt and the New Deal, American Catholics were “recognized as a major force in society” and raised to a new level of influence that indicated a transformation in the American political attitude toward the church and in the church’s disposition toward the government.[4]  In the first half of the twentieth century, Catholics achieved sufficient numerical strength at the polls to ensure that their views were embodied in public policy, and the political influence of religious leaders might be considerable.[5]

As the twentieth century proceeded, the social transformation of New England Catholic lay people was dramatic.  Playing out the stereotypical American story of upward mobility, Catholics used the institutions they had built to promote their own advancement across the generations.  Church-affiliated colleges with undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools opened new paths to white-collar jobs, and Catholics eagerly took advantage of them.[6] Catholics became a force to be reckoned with in American society.  The way in which Catholics came to influence the politics of the six states has been the most visible public expression of that dominance.  This did not happen all at once, of course, and it took almost three quarters of the twentieth century before each state had elected a Catholic as governor for the first time:  Rhode Island in 1906, Massachusetts in 1913, New Hampshire in 1936, Connecticut in 1940, Maine in 1954, and finally Vermont in 1972.[7]  Catholics had become a power numerically as well as socially and politically.  But this influence would reach a culmination point.

The election of John Kennedy as president of the United States in 1960 seemed like the pinnacle of political success for New England’s Catholics, and so it was.  Apparently settling once and for all the “Catholic question” about the religion of candidates for the presidency, Kennedy’s victory signaled that Catholics had achieved full acceptance, both regionally and nationally.[8]  This was near the ending of a period of great growth within Catholic ranks in America.  Between 1945 and 1965, American Catholicism experienced a phenomenal growth, one significantly unmatched during the previous twenty years and one not repeated in the post-1965 period.[9]  But what happens when any institution, especially one of religious persuasion, begins to gain power, comfort, prosperity and influence?  The spiritual aspect of that institution inevitably begins to decline.  Could it be that many Catholics jumped on board a bandwagon of progress but didn’t fully accept the religious implications of their association with the church?  The facts seem to point to yes.  Since the 1960s, the practice of confession has fallen off dramatically across the board, with fewer and fewer Catholics of all kinds satisfying the minimum standard.[10]  This quest for materialism and the American Dream inevitably deteriorated the spiritual fiber of American Catholics (as it has to many American Protestants and Evangelicals!).

This change was signified in the central Catholic event of the last century, the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965.  This gathering of bishops from around the world effected major changes in the Church’s understanding of itself and, more immediately, in the way its services were conducted.  The Mass and the other sacraments were now conducted in the vernacular language of the congregation rather than in Latin, a language uniformly foreign to all.  Church buildings were redesigned, and greater openness to other churches and other cultures was encouraged…Catholics in New England were generally unprepared for Vatican II…thus, when the changes of Vatican II arrived in the middle 1960s, they seemed to most New England Catholics to come out of the blue. [11]

A more loosely affiliated Catholicism that was more tolerant of other faiths and less committed to the traditions of the Catholicism of the past led to a greater spiritual apathy among the Catholic laity.  The religious practice of ordinary Catholics, the “men and women in the pews”, changed slowly but inexorably in the aftermath of Vatican II.  Going to church was quite different by the end of the twentieth century from what it had been at the beginning.  Participation by New England Catholics in the Mass and the sacraments was the most evident sign of change.  Though reliable statistics are hard to come by for either the earlier or later period, most estimates pegged weekly Mass attendance among self-identified Catholics at roughly 30 percent by the year 2000, down from 70 percent or higher in 1900.[12]  Parishioners had heard repeatedly that they-not the pope, the bishops, the clergy, or sisters, but they themselves- were the Catholic Church, apparently, they believed it. [13]  But it was clear that a Catholicism based more on the individual did not ignite a greater devotion to the religious and spiritual practices within the faith.

[2] Catholics in America, 67

[3] Religion and Public Life in New England, 47

[4] Catholics in America, 88

[5] Relgion and Public Life in New England, 50

[6] Ibid., 48

[7] Ibid., 49

[8] Ibid., 51

[9] Catholics in America, 93

[10] Religion and Public Life in New England, 53

[11] Ibid., 53-54

[12] Ibid., 55

[13] Ibid., 58